Watch moths use scent to learn about their environment | Science

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Watch moths use scent to learn about their environment | Science

If you ever wanted to know what a moth was thinking, this might be as close as you’re going to get. In a new study published today in Cell Reports, researchers placed female hawkmoths (Manduca sexta) in a wind tunnel containing two pieces of filter paper—one covered in a test odor, and one with no odor. Perhaps not surprisingly, the insects were most attracted to odors containing aromatic chemicals, which are present in plants that are common nectar sources. Some odors consistently caused the moths to touch their feet to the paper while curving their abdomen, which is how they lay eggs, indicating that moths associate those odors with egg laying. With six different odors, the moths alternated touching their feet and their mouths to the same odor, suggesting that plants containing one or all of those chemicals, such as jimson weed, are important for both feeding and egg laying. By combining these data with imaging of nerve cells at the base of the moths’ antennae, the researchers identified four clusters of nerves specifically associated with feeding behavior and six specifically associated with egg laying, but none associated with both behaviors. This means moths use specific odors to direct their behavior. The scientists say more research is needed to see whether nerve clusters respond to odor the same way in other species of moths and pollinating insects, which can help identify important odors and the plants that make them.

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